After decades of repeated retirement and rebirth, the Main Street Electrical Parade is set to make another comeback at Disneyland.
The 45-year-old nighttime parade returns to Disneyland on Jan. 20 after an extended run at Florida’s Magic Kingdom theme park.
The beloved low-tech parade of lights, which made its debut in 1972, almost didn’t make it to Disneyland’s Main Street USA. During a dress rehearsal in the run-up to the launch, a third of the floats were unfinished, sparks flew from the performers’ lighted costumes and one parade unit crashed into a building.
So how did the Main Street Electrical Parade become an instant hit? The story begins in December 1971. The Magic Kingdom theme park had just opened to tremendous fanfare, and the Disneyland brass were jealous of all the attention the new Florida park was getting.
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Ronald Miziker, then Disneyland director of show development, and his boss, Robert Jani, vice president of the park’s entertainment division, were summoned to a meeting with park president Card Walker. Something needed to be done – and fast – to put the spotlight back on the Anaheim, Calif., park, which had just welcomed its 100 millionth visitor.
Walker wanted his entertainment team to come up with an idea for a nighttime event that would keep visitors in Disneyland after dark.
During a brainstorming session, they discussed a host of nighttime entertainment possibilities. Disney World had just launched an Electric Water Pageant, which featured barges mounted with colorful light displays that reflected on a shimmering lake. Disneyland hosted nighttime concerts at the Tomorrowland stage by pop stars such as the Osmond Brothers and the Carpenters, but only a few thousand visitors could watch the expensive-to-produce shows each night.
“Why can’t we make Main Street our stage?” asked Miziker, recalling the conversation in a recent phone interview with the Los Angeles Times.
Jani and Miziker sketched out a concept that combined the floating Florida light displays with an after-dark parade. Now all they needed was to figure out how to make it work. Jani assigned the multi-pronged task to Miziker.
The first challenge: getting power to all the lights, onboard sound systems and power drives for each parade unit. Gas generators were out; they made too much noise and produced too many fumes. Extension cords would look silly and create trip-and-fall hazards. Car batteries couldn’t produce enough juice.
“We even considered electrifying the tracks along Main Street,” Miziker said.
They finally settled on nickel-cadmium batteries, which the Disney movie studios had just started using. The NiCad batteries would hold enough power to light the floats during the entire parade but would need to be recharged before the second performance of the night.
The second challenge: how to build the floats. In the 1970s, the most common Christmas lights featured thumb-sized colored bulbs. But Jani and Miziker preferred the smaller bulbs used to decorate the trees along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. The strands of tiny Italian-made lights were distributed by a Chicago holiday display company, which agreed to supply the bulbs and build the Disneyland floats.
That left the Disneyland entertainment team time to puzzle over a slew of other hurdles. Among them: getting all the lights along the parade route to simultaneously turn off; creating “sound zones” that synched the music with each passing float; and recording a looped version of the now familiar “Baroque Hoedown” theme song.
Then, about two months before the parade’s debut, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. During a trip to Chicago, Miziker was shocked to find the float construction in disarray.
“The units were half built,” Miziker said. “Nothing was done.”
Miziker hired 14 moving vans, loaded up the floats and shipped them to California. Back in Anaheim, Jani set up a circus tent in a backstage area of the park where round-the-clock teams of welders and electricians began assembling the dozen parade units. Adding to the stress: All of the 500,000 white miniature bulbs needed to be hand-tinted.
“We hired all these ladies to hand dip the light bulbs in all these colors,” Miziker said.
Less than a week before the debut, a third of the floats were not ready. As the clock ticked down to opening night, Disneyland secretaries volunteered to install the half-million light bulbs on the floats. Miziker was convinced he was going to be fired if and when the project failed.
“It was an absolute nightmare,” Miziker said. “But it was just so amazing to see how everybody was into making this parade happen.”
A few days before kickoff, the first rehearsal turned into an “absolute disaster,” Miziker said. Cinderella’s canopy of lights collapsed. Two horseback riders dropped an illuminated banner. Sparks flew from the performers’ lighted costumes. A float crashed into a building along Main Street USA.
“Halfway through the rehearsal we called it off,” Miziker said. “Things weren’t working. We were having a lot of mechanical problems.”
On June 17, 1972, dozens of electricians were still climbing all over the floats as the parade was announced over the Disneyland public address system. Half of the floats had never been turned on. The NiCad batteries only had enough charge to make it from Disneyland’s Town Square to the Matterhorn mountain.
“It went right down to the wire, but it all worked,” Miziker said. “Well, it didn’t all work for another two weeks, but it was good enough for first appearances.”
The parade became an instant hit with visitors, blending a mix of intimacy and spectacle that was both charming and dazzling.
After its initial run, the Electrical Parade disappeared for two summers in 1975 and ‘76 to make way for a bicentennial-themed parade and again in 1983 and ‘84 for a parade celebrating the newly renovated Fantasyland.
After officially “glowing away forever” in 1996, the parade returned in 2001 to Disney California Adventure in an effort to boost the new park’s attendance. After a decade at DCA, the Electrical Parade was shipped to Florida’s Magic Kingdom.
The parade’s latest limited run at Disneyland begins Jan. 20 and continues through June 18.
During the past four decades, Disney unveiled versions of the popular parade in Florida’s Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. Through the years, the original Electrical Parade inspired several Disney imitators, including SpectroMagic, Fantillusion, Light Magic and Paint the Night.
After 20 years at Disney, Miziker started his own theme park design and production company in Burbank, Calif. In 2015, he was honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Themed Entertainment Association, a theme park industry group.
Beyond his notable career at Disney, Jani worked on the 1976 U.S. bicentennial celebrations in New York, stage shows for New York City’s Radio City Music Hall and Super Bowl halftime extravaganzas. Jani, who died in 1989, has been named a Disney Legend and honored with Main Street commemorative windows at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom.